#MeToo, But Not You

Creative Commons   [Image description: a screen displaying the words #metoo over and over]

Creative Commons

[Image description: a screen displaying the words #metoo over and over]

It is quite the breath of fresh air that sexual violence has finally reached its tipping point into national consciousness after years of being tucked away by ruthless predators and terrified victims. What was once kept hushed by ruined careers, bribery, threats of violence, and gas lighting has been exposed for the monstrous aberration that it is, and survivors’ are at long last being given the spotlight and the platforms to tell their stories.

The wealthy white ones at least.

While the waves caused by the #MeToo movement have breathed new life into survivors and invigorated them to tell their stories and bring their assaulters to justice, it has taken far too long for the conversation to finally be taken seriously, and even then the stories of only a few have attained prominence in this crusade.

It’s no secret that white womanhood is valued more than gold in the United States. The thought of any misfortune, real or perceived, befalling the precious pearls of the American Empire has proven on myriad occasions to rally fervent and passionate defense that often intersects with ruthless violence. White women are the “perfect victims:” blameless, pure, beautiful, feminine treasures meant to be protected at all costs. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are black women whose humanity is vehemently denied on a daily basis. This most recent explosion of righteous anger about sexual violence is a perfect microcosm of the constant devaluing we endure every day.

Sexual violence is something that black women have had to learn to cope with since the inception of the United States. We have always been viewed as the direct antithesis to white women: where they are pure and virginal we are hypersexual, masculine, and animalistic. Because we are viewed in such a way, because we are abnormal, our bodies are not valued the same. Black women for a long time have been viewed as un-rapeable because to be sexually violated means to be robbed of some sense of innocence and safety, but in a society that dictates that our skin color exempts us from virtue and therefore deems us animals, things not worth protecting, any level of violence perpetrated against us is seen as deserved, defensible, or simply unremarkable.

The slaying of Nia Wilson and the language being used to report on her murder is an example of this. Several headlines and tweets emphasize “unprovoked” and “unwarranted” as the particular horror of Wilson’s killing. This may appear sympathetic to the uninitiated, but when you understand the long perpetuated stereotype of the “angry black woman” who is vindictive and aggressive in her attitude and actions and always Provoking™ that repetition leaves a particularly sour taste in your mouth. It shouldn’t have to said that a public stabbing was unprovoked. The implication is that had there been evidence of “attitude,” of even the tiniest bit of resistance, people may have felt less inclined to pity Wilson because she would have deserved it then.

Such was the case of Korryn Gaines, who was lambasted as a “crazy lady,” a “stupid bitch,” and an “armed lunatic” after being gunned down in her own home in 2016. Many argued her death was an inevitability brought about by the prior videoed confrontation she had with police and the six hour standoff that followed, a particular insistence that has persisted despite Cliven Bundy and co., Dylann Roof, and Craig Hicks a few years earlier all being apprehended alive. Even when they take their own lives, the likes of Stephen Paddock, David Katz, and many other white perpetrators are still given sympathy within the media with mental health being a common scapegoat; no such regard was afforded to Gaines in the media frenzy that followed her untimely murder.

It puts into perspective the lackluster coverage of black women and girls who go missing: we’re not newsworthy until we’re dead. It’s the only possible explanation for why the reporting and solving of cases involving us is so disproportionately low in comparison to white women. Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway’s ordeals have become cemented in the pop culture’s conception of what a “missing girl” is: young, upper-middle class, suburban, and white.

If there is no room for us and our stories when our lives are in mortal danger it will come as no surprise that black women are also overlooked in the discussion of sexual violence.

R. Kelly has been preying on black girls for nearly his entire 30-year career starting with his illegal marriage to at-the-time 15-year old Aaliyah in ‘94 and continuing with accusations of possessing child pornography to current allegations of holding young hostages in an abusive cult. None of this has inspired conversation on par with the most recent waves of outcry about sexual violence outside of circles of other black women, and stories about R. Kelly’s exploits often break and fall out of mass consciousness on social media practically within the same week.

There was no flood of celebrities that came out in support of Lupita Nyong’o when she eloquently related her encounters of the Weinstein kind in The New York Times, and she and Salma Hayek have so far been the only accusers Weinstein has pushed back against, and they’ve been mysteriously absent from material discussing Me Too and its effects.

Gabrielle Union has been an outspoken advocate for her fellow sexual assault survivors for years, yet no one at TIME could be bothered to include her or Lupita or Tarana Burke, the creator of Me Too, on the cover of their silence breakers issue.

Chikesia Clemons had her chest forcibly exposed when she was wrestled to the ground in an Alabama Waffle House in April of this year, and this past July was found guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. For asking for a phone number.

When news broke in August that Kelly may possibly be engaged in sexual activity with men some of his long time defenders were finally spurred to consider cutting ties with the musician, not the years of allegations of abuse against young black girls.

When black women and girls are the victims of sexual violence it barely registers as an anomaly on the radar.

There’s this prevailing, unspoken notion that black women are unbreakable mules meant to carry other into the Promised Land on our backs, and people seem determined to actualize that vision and leech off the work of black women writers, activists, and artists while simultaneously leaving us to be crushed under the weight of the struggles we work so hard to combat. The co-opting of Me Too by the likes of Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano and Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lawrence and Taylor Swift and other white female celebrities – many of whom also have a history of anti-blackness – speaks to this truth recognized in the world of black women: all of our endeavors, at some point, will be appropriated and we will be shut out and erased.

Tarana Burke started Me Too in 2006, a full twelve years before it reached viral status with Milano’s tweets in October of last year. For all those years, Burke has been giving speeches and hosting workshops in marginalized communities to address sexual violence on the streets, in schools, in the workplace, and in places of worship. She’s spent years building a platform for black and brown girls, yet her name and face are still not widely known. Instead, it was McGowan who sat poised for an E! documentary series of her own under the Me Too banner and Milano who had mistakenly been credited with starting Me Too. In the span of a handful of months, the hashtag and the platform Burke created became synonymous with these white celebs and black women are once again vanished into the background.

Not only has Me Too been whitewashed, it’s also been watered down to leave whole swaths of people out in the cold. Like many issues championed under the brand of feminism or women’s empowerment other women of color, trans women, poor women, immigrant women, working class women, sex workers, disabled women, incarcerated women, and male survivors, among many many others, have been largely ignored in this conversation; this includes the white women who fall into any of the aforementioned categories. There has been little to no discussion of how those things make it so much more difficult to be believed or heard on the scale of our Hollywood heroines. No talk of the poor women who have to decide between speaking up or being put out of their apartments by the landlords who harass and rape them. No consideration for the undocumented women who have to decide between speaking up or possibly having ICE called on them and their families. No thought given to the sex workers who are still just trying to convince people that they can in fact be raped. With each passing day the movement looks more and more like an invitation-only gala.

As a whole, men who have been sexually assaulted have also been rendered invisible; Terry Crews’s lonely crusade for justice is disheartening and maddening all at once because it highlights the tendency for exclusion in feminist movements when it doesn’t fit the white woman mold as well as the all-encompassing nature of sexual harassment and abuse. No one is truly safe. Crews’s recounting of his assault barely gained him a miniscule amount of support from his colleagues and active ridicule from others like 50 Cent, despite some embittered Me Too-ers claiming that men would be taken more seriously. To this day, randoms on the Internet still claim that he should’ve “just fought back” without recognizing the societal disadvantage his blackness put him in. Black men are commonly portrayed in media as predatory, immoral, and aggressive and have had to contend with centuries-worth of imagery that paints them as sexual deviants waiting to victimize others, especially white women. Therefore, it’s hard for people to imagine that they can also be victims. The physical retaliation that would have gotten McGowan or Paltrow or Swift called brave would’ve landed Crews in jail because of his status as a black person in the United States. Being a man didn’t protect Crews, and it hasn’t protected the thousands of men and boys who have been victimized, and Me Too has somewhat further stigmatized them by so unfailingly centering the stories of rich white women over others.

The relative silence of these women is not unexpected. The selfishness of affluent white women is an ever-present canker of social progress that must be addressed by them. They already have a modicum of respect to their names as famous artists and as white people, so there aren’t nearly as many obstacles in their way in terms of finding or creating platforms and being heard as there are for the rest of us. If an end to the reign of sexual violence is truly what they want they have an obligation to all victims to provide a space for healing to those whose testimonies and pain may never see the cover of a national magazine.  If the goal is to create a world where all feel safe and empowered to speak their truth this is not optional. If Me Too is to have a lasting impact these prerequisites to be heard must be demolished.

The Me Too movement in its newest incarnation is certainly bringing to light the very necessary conversation we need to have about sexual violence and accountability, but the conversation is still not accessible to every survivor. None of this is to advocate for “preferential treatment” over wealthy white women; their wealth makes their pain no less valid. What this is is a call for equitable treatment.  If we believe every survivor should have a voice, those of us who call ourselves allies need to listen to every single one, believe every single one, give every single one the time and space to be heard. We can’t make exceptions. We can’t plug our ears when the victim isn’t “respectable” or when it’s our faves being accused. We can’t only tune in when the right people are wronged.

Monte Varrick is a 22-year old rare specimen of Black nerd that has no white friends that she lets say the N-word. When she finally manages to slump out of bed she runs a pop culture blog called Vermillion Dynamo!!! where she talks about anime, books, movies, and stuff. You can find her gushing about movies on Twitter @MonteVarrick and writing short fiction at MV Writing.